Confronting “Culture”: Ideological Becoming and ‘Regimes of Thought’

I plan to wander. There will be an implicit program, but I don’t intend to provide a roadmap to my thoughts. For certain, the (translated) language and ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin will be present, sprinkled in, sometimes explained and sometimes not. The stories and concepts I present will at times be left to drift, episodes like icebergs; and the claims, fragile and incomplete. This genre of reflection and casting about is my comfort food, and I intend to serve it homestyle.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian philosopher and literary critic who seems to have struck on something fundamental about the discursive, dialogic nature of human existence. Along with his keenly observed literary and social comment, he offers a language to describe important features of an individual’s relationship to her socially mediated world. Here his language acts like a spider web that has caught and suspends the idea-moths of other thinkers, quivering, alongside each other until the filaments break with time or breeze. You will catch me climbing along this web, entering into a dialog with myself by allowing my simple understanding of some big ideas to take up room in my mind-space long enough to speak to each other. These caricatures of concepts have, I’ve noticed, been lifted into and reframed by my internally persuasive discourses, a notion of Bakhtin’s.

I was aching, each joint of my thoracic and cervical spine enveloped by smarting and tense musculature. I stood with two other men out of earshot of the church program in progress under a circus tent nearby. We were at the time discussing race relations within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This is not a comfortable subject for most of us who belong to the church. There is a complex history with plenty of residue to sort out. One of the men was a friend of mine who gets paid to fight discrimination on the institutional level. You might say that he has skin the game—I suppose we all do. Listening, my chin tipped up to him—a tall, broad-chested African American, I occasionally adjusted to counter the stiffness in my neck. The other man, a White, craggy pastor I had just met that afternoon, took a turn and transitioned gravely, as if he was expecting to rattle both of us with his controversial idea. Something about the something Black church, something, something. Like a blink that comes between clauses of speech, I subconsciously chose the moment that he breathed and gauged our faces to relieve my neck tension by twisting side to side. “Oh,” he quailed, “So you disagree?”

I’m tired of thinking and producing in particular ways. Even if the centripetal force of academic discourse is acting less fundamentally or consequentially on me than, say, a poor kid from the Detroit ghetto, my natural and comfortable genres are generally far removed from the economy, precision, argumentation, and intellectual continuity of academic discourse (thinking of both of James Gee’s big-D and little-d discourse). It’s mainly the memory required by the academic genre that I often find myself deficient in. Whose idea was that? Which scholar made that claim? I don’t remember who; if anything at all, I usually only remember what—kind of.

Language-bound ideas cleave spontaneously into strong, crystalline structures in my mind, as when the rock candy I grew as a kid formed from unseen suspended sugars. Based on my experience, my intuition, my reasoning, or big ideas from my worldview, I have things to say. An epistemology based on experience and individual ideation is, for the most part, rejected by the scholarly community. Even qualitative researchers want the weight of a body of evidence, something observable, a sense of scholarly rigor. I appreciate these values but do not always feel up to the challenge or care to play that game.

These are reflections similar to those that spring from performing on an unfamiliar instrument or catching hints of an ex’s scent. There is an awkward discontinuity in those moments. Consider that Chronos-time moves linearly and sends me prepared or unprepared into the next present, while Kairos-time allows for bubbles and contractions of noticing and experience. It is as if these two chronotopes (time-spaces) demand attention simultaneously. The first claims that one unrelenting reality exists. Things are things in linear time only because they were caused to be that way by the things just before. The Newtonian world works this way: cause-effect, determined. What physically is could never have been otherwise. Structuralists and poststructuralists seem describe the social world similarly, lacking, according to Frederick Erickson and others, the ability to account for free will and societal shifts.

I am something in linear time and was inexorably caused to be this way. My identity is fixed and observable, my sense of self uniform and continuous and more of the same, only more of it, moving forward. It is a particularly comfortable chronotope because it is fully received as authoritative discourse: an organized, predictable world, physical and social, whose underlying nature has only to be measured with more precise instruments. Objects have mass and countries have borders. Unaffected forces do not deviate and cultures have palpable essence.

The second claims that crowds of realities—possibilities—orbit me like clouds of untraceable electrons. This is Einstein’s world of relativity and Heisenberg’s of uncertainty, where time and space can wrinkle and stretch—this is coming from The Quantum Moment. Bakhtin was apparently inspired by these ideas. There was something like a Subjective Turn around the time of those thinkers. What had been conversations concerning epistemology—what do we know about reality and how do we know it?—morphed into issues of ontology—does reality exist in the way we thought it did? Does a single, rule-governed reality exist at all? What seemed to come into focus at least was the undeniable preeminence of subjectivity, of vantage point. Kairos-time seems to capture that shift and places the experience of reality (realities) above concerns of capturing or representing anything stable and irreducible.

By its nature, the Kairos-time chronotope speaks of potential. If the physical world proves itself to be, on certain planes, random or undetermined, then perhaps my inner world is, too. Perhaps I am intended—built—to be becoming. Unfinalized. For Lev Vygotsky, at the start, selfhood develops by a process of internalization, the acquisition of mental tools first exposed to and then fished for by an inchoate mind. For Bakhtin the mind is produced through the discursive ingestion of others. It is an innocent kind of social and ideological cannibalism. My self, my consciousness, was and will never be entirely my own. Those words and ideas that have come to feel like me (not only ‘mine’) are dripping and ragged chunks of others’ minds. A less gruesome metaphor: I am a self-aware patchwork quilt. My threads and edges bear and seams exposed, some splayed open, I am meant to be added to, adjusted, and resewn. The Chronos-time trope, however, denies such readiness.

My question is whether both of these chronotopes can be true at the same time. Does a world exist independent of me and yet dependent on me in infinite ways? In either case, I am fairly confident of one thing: to live is to change. (This is not meant to be a Buddhist echo, but I suppose it lines up well.) It is to remain in dialog with my environment, especially its residents. I can only one day believe that I am finished and begin in that moment to die a special kind of death. A pool that ceases conversation with channels of fresh water becomes stagnant. A sealed space will sustain a burning candle for only so long. These are like the death I am describing. The pool remains but without life, and the candle remains but without flame. So the self shrivels without the stimulation of otherness, outsidedness.

A friend told me a story. He was grocery shopping in an affluent district adjacent to the Ivy League university he was currently attending. He had spun through the aisles and, brimming basket in hand, moved to the checkout. Two gray-haired women were at the register watching their items conveyed into bags. He stepped up and began placing his groceries on the belt. The lady nearest him turned and, after inspecting him, scowled. She reached for and brandished a divider stick and unceremoniously slapped it down between their items and his—he remembers the slap distinctly. His is Caribbean Black and they were White.

What scope and scale of outsidedness matters? Two of Bakhtin’s concepts are at issue here. The first is ideological becoming—I described this partially above without giving it this name—and the second is polyphony. A musical image of polyphony works well to introduce it, though I’m here abandoning its technical definitions like bodies for a sky burial. You can imagine a string quartet, four voices. Each instrument has a different part to play; without each part the music would be comparatively anemic. When multiple voices are included in the production of a musical utterance, this is a basic and non-technical example of polyphony. Simple.

Musical polyphony (even in its technical senses), however, does not transduce neatly into interpersonal communication or a dialogic stance. The Bakhtinian expositor has to conceive of polyphony apart from temporal coincidence, the typical characteristic on which musical polyphony relies. Obviously, many people speaking at once doesn’t produce a conversational concerto. Bakhtin located polyphony in Dostoevsky’s work as a literary device; the author, as a matter of style and possibly social critique, refused to position his narrator(s) as authoritative. He distributed his authorial prerogative between many characters of the story, which Bakhtin took to be polyphony. In this case, polyphony is not simultaneity but rather a democratization—let me say relativization—of truth-perspective, an injection of unreliability and uncertainty.

Carolyn Shields and others have attempted to map Bakhtin’s polyphony to social discourse, almost like sussing out the Moonlight Sonata on a pan flute. According to Shields, “polyphony refers to a multiplicity of voices that remain distinct, never merge, and are never silenced by a more powerful majority” (Shields’s Bakhtin Primer, p. 36). ‘Voices’ could mean perspectives, opinions, ideologies, or anything where diversity can be represented in discourse. The source of the voice is as important according to this angle of approach as the content of the voice. This is an argument made by Ludmila Marchenkova (in Hall et al., Dialog with Bakhtin in Second and Foreign Language Education). There are critical and relativistic intimations here: all perspectives should be heard (i.e, none oppressed); and, if taken to the extreme, assimilation, consensus, and compromise should be avoided. Polyphony is lifted from an aesthetic or literary effect (I’m undercutting both Bakhtin’s admiration for Dostoevsky and polyphony as ideological stance with this statement) to a socio-political tool.

There is a polyphonic ring to Michel Foucault’s program of knowledge “archaeology” that harmonizes very well with Shields’s socio-political definition. His main effort was to expose, resist, and counteract what he called “regimes of thought” (Foucault/Rabinow, The Foucault Reader, p. 84). These regimes are representations and knowledges curated and broadcasted by power centers. They delimit and organize the social world. They populate the world with labels and value judgements about what is and is not normal, appropriate, and good. These regimes act on the bodies and through the behaviors of common people in such a way that individuals discipline themselves to perform specific social roles. In this way, one colludes in the maintenance of one’s own oppression. Foucault believed a strategy for challenging such regimes would be to look into the past to locate moments of conflict and dialog about discourse and truth before or as regimes of thought naturalized—a kind of archaeology. He wanted to give voice to those voices that had been institutionally silenced or marginalized. Such a program would both reveal the power centers to be the oppressive engines they were and provide an opportunity for free thought and human diversity to be celebrated.

I imagine that small scale efforts aimed at maintaining like-spirited varieties of polyphony fire daily, anti-hegemony sparks in scattered pockets of safe dialogic space. Carlson and Schramm-Pate (in Weis and Fine, Beyond Silenced Voices) share what could be a considered a valiant effort, if not successful. From top to bottom, their story is lit in Bakhtinian glory: they set up informed classroom dialog centered on controversy over the so-called confederate flag. Students read about the flag and its history as presented in the news and shared opinions in a relatively safe social context. Of course, race was a central construct in the discussion, and yet there was variety within the racial communities represented there.

Misfires are also common. Multiculturalism as a program was one. It has garnered heavy critique especially among educationalists for being theoretically scrawny, even duplicitous, (e.g., Kostogriz in Hall et al.) and implemented without teeth (e.g., Abu El-Haj in Weis and Fine, Beyond Silenced Voices). More generally, Clements (2006) argues that polyphony on the level of cultures or ethnicities (e.g., a minority group given an opportunity to share its high art) can be considered spectacle and counterproductive to mutual understanding and the deepening of relationship. A specifically classroom-based and perhaps more successful attempt, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy from Gloria Ladson-Billings, has also met with challenges of implementation (see Scherff and Spector’s Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Clashes and Confrontations). These approaches seem to hold at least one feature in common. And I’m beginning to believe that they and approaches like them are sinking ships because of it.

It was a bright, warm Sabbath afternoon. A group of us had had lunch at the little elementary school where several of my friends worked, and much of the group had dispersed for various recreational activities. I was lazily pumping on the school’s playground swing set chatting with the wife of a local school administrator who I was also getting to know. We three had seen each other at church occasionally, shared space at a few potluck lunches, and lightly discussed music. A few years older than me, auburn-headed, milk-skinned, and wispy-tall, she sat two swings away, kicking at the woodchips beneath her. What was she teaching? How long had she been around here? Oh, I’ve been here a few months. Yeah, I’ve played guitar since eight grade. How did she like the city? Where did she live? Her answer to this final question caught my attention. She said, “I live in an apartment near North Station.” A few weeks later I learned that those two were intending to get divorced.

These days I’m becoming much more sensitive to pronoun usage. I have picked up on patterns in the past, but whether because I’m doing more discourse analysis or thinking more critically about how individuals operationalize culture, they are popping up more frequently and, possibly, more sinisterly. In particular, I’m interested in (and concerned about) how folks use ‘we’ (everything I’m about to describe applies conversely to ‘they’). Sometimes the referents of this pronoun are clear, as when a discursive circle is drawn around the speaker and the person standing next to them: “We both jumped at the same time.” Or perhaps the included other or group lived in the speaker’s narrative: “We all clapped when the pilot brought the plane to a stop.” I think you get the picture. The speaker ties themselves to somebody real, a CIA-verifiable co-experiencer.

There are also cases where ‘we’ might refer to a legal status or biological state, as in “We [Koreans] have free entry into the most countries in the world” or “We [ticket holders] get a refund because they cancelled the concert” or “We [humans] need oxygenized blood inside our bodies to survive.” The second of these categorizations, biological state, is more or less empirically-based and true as long as the science says it is. “We [humans] rely on the gametes from two opposite sexes in order to reproduce” may not be true in the future for whatever reason. The first categorizations, the legal state, is highly dependent upon the stability and political solvency of the institutions that write and enforce laws and standards. When a nation collapses, the language that used to represent that group as a political entity could lose its social power—this is similar to the issue that Abu El-Haj took up concerning the social viability of a Palestinian identity if Palestine isn’t recognized by other nations. Also, when laws shift, groups and memberships may shift. Couples who do not fit the one-man-one-woman model of marriage can now officially include themselves in the ‘we’ of marriage laws in the US for this reason.

Even with the above examples of ‘we,’ I claimed that there can be fluidity on some level. What is a defensible, solid ‘we’ today might not be so tomorrow. A third use I’m seeing, which sometimes feels like a legal or biological use, is quite different. It is a strange and almost fantastical use but so commonplace: “We [men] don’t like to talk about our feelings;” “We [Asians] respect our elders;” “We [the Baby Boomer’s generation] knew how to work hard;” “We [Northern Indians] love spicy food;” “We [Buffalonians] enjoy the snow;” “We [American English speakers] would say, ‘It’s not going to rain today.’” Something special is going on here. Maleness, Asian-ness, and age seem to be biological and Indian-ness and Buffalonian-ness are arguably legal states. But these comments have little or nothing to do with biology or law; they are judgments of what seems to be natural to these groups; the language comment aligns this way as well. As I assume no single person has met each of the others who identify as the groups to which they have claimed membership, the ‘we’ takes on imagined qualities for both the speaker and their counterpart. The speaker claims membership and the faces of the referents seem to blend into a fuzzy, idealized mask. The mask takes on features particular to the speaker’s view of reality.  It is as if the speaker recruits a single, faceless individual to defend the truth-statement they are making. This recruited individual is to a large degree imagined. This figure joins Bakhtin’s three-player conversation of the speaker, listener and personified topic–then there were four! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“I don’t know if it counts, but when I was working in the cafeteria of the school there’s one time the manager, like, found another Chinese girl eating in the dishwash room. And she thought that was me. I was like, ‘Can’t you discriminate we are different people?’ We look totally different. She’s like, ‘I’m sure that’s you.’ I was like, ‘I’m a cashier. I cannot be there at that time.’ She’s like, ‘That’s you. I caught you eating in the dishwash room.’ I was like… So that’s the only time I feel, like, not so good about the experience because she actually give me a warning, like, ‘You cannot eat in the dishwash room during your working time.’ I explained but that girl she caught is actually my friend. So, I cannot say, ‘It was me, it’s her.’ I feel like I betray my friend.”

Benedict Anderson introduced the term imagined communities to scholarship. My reading on the use and critique of that term is limited, but I find it to be linked to a powerful idea that I am whistling-happy to oversimplify for my purposes. Anderson discusses his understanding of the rise of the notion of nationalism in his book Imagined Communities. An individual who goes on a pilgrimage or is the audience of certain media can quickly find themselves lifted on to the plane of an imagined community. They sense solidarity with folks they have never met. Such imagined communities gain what I like to call political mass and do political work by mobilizing people who in many cases have imagined bonds. Take the American Revolution as an example. Colonizing tribes—tribes are face-to-face communities—had grown into colonies with separate currencies, governments, and media streams. The step to national consciousness was a dangerous, but not too distant, one. It took an unwavering faith in individuals one had never met but who, based on discursive representations (thin and specific regimes of thought), had been shown to be committed to the revolutionary cause and reliable. At each link in the communication chain from general to soldier and back to general, there is some degree of curated truth and imagined reality. As far as the foot soldier knows, all of the war but that of which he has had direct experience is imaginary. The maps, news bulletins, and even the firsthand stories of other soldiers, do nothing to concretize war somewhere else. Imagination, then, was a prerequisite to mass mobilization.

To get a sense for the work of media (any form of discourse) and interaction on the imagination, recall The Truman Show. Truman is the star of his own reality TV show and he doesn’t know it. He relies entirely on contact with his tribemates and media consumption to understand and imagine his world, as we all do, only his is an elaborate invention. Eventually, he begins to notice social cracks and works out the truth. The regime of thought that had structured Truman’s world, curated his truth, and allowed for his ignorance to be exploited for the sake of power and profit, was in the end exposed. As an interesting side note, the Truman Show Delusion is a real thing, a diagnosable mental illness, that is essentially one’s deep doubt of the messages of one’s tribemates and media streams. While I certainly don’t mean to suggest that everyone should break from their social realities as Truman must, there is something to be learned here. The Truman Show argues whimsically that imagination acts powerfully on the interpretation of one’s direct experience. And the world that is painted for (notice the passive voice indicating that nebulous batch of power centers) an individual through media and tribal contact sublimated to the level of an imagined community is rarely if ever disinterested.

In Modernity at Large Arjun Appadurai traces the imaginification (do you like this word?) of communities through the process of globalization, as immigration and dislocation upset the old geographically bounded nature of communities. A multiplicity of media streams ties immigrants and refugees back to the nations and ethnic groups they left. These streams are, of course, only representations of home—Appadurai calls these representations “invented homelands” (p. 38)—and can serve political purposes. Think of any given media stream as a potential regime of thought. Over time cultural shift and hybridization occurs for both groups, confusing claims to common identities that come to stand for groups with diverging practices and ideologies—same Chronos, different Kairos. Appadurai also provides the especially apropos example of the colonial British grouping Indian peoples in ways unnatural to them in order to manage them more efficiently. Though Appadurai does not speak about this, the European-imposed borders laid across Africa were also drawn without sensitivity to local social structures. The resulting groups exist for economic and political reasons.

These processes of imagined community development are taking place within and between people groups at all levels as the diversification of media and the ability to target populations increases. But this is the point: regardless of whether it started as a legal, biological or some other state, if an imagined community gains political mass, it will do what any power center does, try to reproduce and strengthen itself. “It’s for the cause.” That means curating and broadcasting regimes of thought that silence and marginalize voices inside and outside of that particular imagined community. You see where I’m going: the work of imagined communities is essentializing, reductionist, dehumanizing work. I’m thinking of an example in Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. Goldstein recounts the Women’s Suffrage movement as it related to the education system. She shares two surprising observations. The first is that around the same time there was an effort to enfranchise African American men for considering women of any persuasion. This resulted in influential suffragettes aligning themselves with outright racists to further their cause. Second, as early feminism and its priorities evolved, first being to get women education and jobs and second being to get women equal pay and the vote, there was conflict between influential figures, particularly Catherine Beecher and Susan B. Anthony. If women were to keep progressing according to Anthony’s sense of progress, Beecher and her ideas would need to be abandoned—Anthony called them “stupid” and “false”. And they were abandoned.

In no way do I mean to discredit the efforts made by individuals in order to release groups of people from oppression. The achievements gained by mobilizing imagined communities for the benefit of individuals who claim membership or who are forced into membership into those communities are great and worth celebrating. The victories for Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, Gay Rights, all of these and others relied on the power of media and the solidarity of tribes that could join together as imagined communities. I merely mean to point out that a necessary step in the process of gaining political momentum is consolidating the imagined community’s image and truth.

Most imagined communities—certainly those sitting at the center of diversity discussions today, those tied to national, regional, religious, ethnic, racial, and gender/sexual identities—are primarily political. That is to say that such labeled identities probably wouldn’t exist if they had not been created by powerful groups or developed in order to resist some kind of imposition. Fields and Fields in Racecraft discuss how racial identities were invented and then codified into law, establishing imagined communities in order to regulate them. The LGBT community, on the other hand, seems to have formed in response to politically productive ideologies that marginalized people who identify in particular ways. Interestingly, there is currently a petition to “Drop the T” from the acronym because some people feel that “their ideology is not only completely different from that promoted by the LGB community … but is ultimately regressive and actually hostile to the goals of women and gay men.” The flexible length of the acronym is worth contemplating. Whether it sounds good or not, there are regimes of thought broadcasted by influencers at the center(s) of each imagined-community-as-political-entity that act on individuals, on their bodies and through their behavior, arguably the way Foucault observed. The diversity within will often be elided for the sake of the cause; that or the dissention can be excised. Dehumanization is inevitable.

Yet, Marchenkova argues for imagined community polyphony from personal experience, claiming that she learned more about her Russian-ness as she interacted with American-ness. To lose her Russian-ness by assimilation would be to rob Americans of learning about themselves. There is something intuitive and attractive about this thinking, but let me place it into polyphonic metaphor. What was a band is now an orchestra with many instruments per section. The expectation is that the first violins will be playing the same part in unison, the second violins another part, the trumpets, tympani, flutes, and others all in groups playing with unified gusto and in moving relation to one another. If I were to extract one musician from each section and have them collectively perform a piece, it would sound the same but unbalanced and with less power. If I were to replace any musician from a given section and repeated the process, I would meet the same result. To operate from Marchenkova’s notion of polyphony is like assuming that the Violas are Russians and the Flutes are Americans. They are basically interchangeable, their timber, tone, and practiced part remaining consistent.

The metaphor fails on a couple of points. Instruments of the same section are supposed to be disciplined into performing the same part. This is a good thing in music. In social life, however, the same process is highly problematic. The notion of regimes of thought or Bourdieu’s habitus illuminate such work. If those with a common national identity, for instance, share certain social characteristics, it is not necessarily because such characteristics are natural to them as individuals. According to Foucault, they have been naturalized through centripetal cultural forces. Second, no quality of imagined community enters into that metaphor. Every flute player knows every other, while any given Russian will know only a tiny percentage of other Russians. What Marchenkova actually means when she discusses self and other on the level of national identity is that she learned more about herself as a product of limited interaction with Russians and representations of Russia in the media by interfacing with Americans who are products of other limited interactions and media. She generalizes her interaction with tribemates and others to be indicative of other Russians without direct evidence and neglects to question the validity of the media representations of other Russians. In other words, she is as trusting as Truman.

This is what folks don’t realize they are bringing into the conversation or the classroom when they attempt to enact polyphony on the level of imagined communities. Indeed, identities tied to imagined communities are often invoked uncritically. It must be said that it is impossible for an individual to represent a political construct. People are people, not politically advantageous inventions. More importantly, one’s impressions (sense of identity and culture) of one’s imagined communities are composites of interpretations of two kinds: (1) contact with tribemates who claim membership to that imagined community and outsiders who provide an apparent contrast and (2) of media representations of that and other imagined communities. You’ve just read a working definition of phenomenological culture or culture of direct experience. When someone describes their culture and includes imagined communities in their description, only what I’ve just outlined is what is available to them.

Through elementary and high school, I was “Laura’s little brother.” My sister, two and a half years older than me, arrived at places and stages first, made relationships and established herself there first. And anyway, even if we did arrive at the same time, she mixed well with the older, more influential students. So, it seemed natural that she was the reference point for my identity. In college things seemed to change—that’s how I remember it. We both went to a private Christian university in Tennessee. Again, she’d gotten there first. However, I was coming into my own as a musician and athlete, and eventually I found myself often on the stage and in the spotlight. My sister, friendly and caring, tends more toward being a strong behind-the-scenes force and to invest socially in smaller and fewer groups of people than I. Later, when most of her friends had graduated and I started taking on leadership roles, the referential inversion was more or less complete. Laura had become “Scott’s older sister”—again, this is how I remember it; she might have a different story.

I have bated you—slightly. I don’t mean to deny the reality of “cultures,” groups of people that experience connectedness through experience and discourse over time. Also, The Truman Show is not the greatest philosophical illustration to work from. At some point and on some level in order to function in the world I suppose I must trust that what I have been told by my communities—I’m speaking about trusting inherited truth under the fluidity of a Kairos chronotope rather than an as approximation of an objectivity found in a Chronos chronotope. The media I consume often reflects the reality of somebody somewhere. When James Coleman, for example, introduced the education world to big educational social justice data in the so-called Coleman Report, he woke people up. Sometimes I need to be shaken from the placidity of my tribal experience. I accept that wide-scale injustice is a thing, even though I don’t touch it daily. Finally, though I have not taken up critiques of poststructuralism, like the compelling one found in Erickson’s Talk and Social Theory, it was correct of structuralists and poststructuralists, now critical theorists, to concern themselves with the macro view. Indeed, the individual consciousness is drawn away from direct experience and into imagined spaces, disciplined and curated, and funneled back into daily thought and practice. (Sometimes unself-conscious) political powers puppet politically massive imagined communities and appropriate individuals wholesale (mentally and bodily under regimes of thought), divide them, and then pit them against each other to achieve social control and change. What if imagination helps to cause inequality and injustice?

But my focus so far has been on the individual—well, me, really. I wondered about my growth, my sense of time and space, my relation to others. At the same time, I’ve questioned the validity of calling on identities tied to imagined communities because of potential dangers and oversights involved. Think about it one last time: I’ve interacted with a few thousand Americans (or men, white people, Seventh-day Adventists, etc.) and would consider my tribe to be a few hundred strong—not all in my tribe share the labels I’ve just mentioned. My only other impressions of what it means to be American come from media I have consumed or outsiders who describe their impressions from also very limited experience with Americans and exposure to media. Yet, there are hundreds of millions of Americans and countless media streams to choose from that would unquestionably compose a very different image of American-ness.

To bring a general America-ness, other than its legal or structural facets, into a conversation is to recruit an invalidated—invalidatable—invention, a mask of a face. To discuss one-on-one the “typical American” is to fall into the trap of regimes of thought, as the notion of typical is necessarily decontextualizing and dehumanizing, bearing false witness to human complexity and, even more gravely, agency. In my opinion, ‘typical’ and ‘average’ are words that belong in board meetings about whether to sell forks or chopsticks in China tomorrow or when writing policy for masses of people, those times when numbers and not souls matter. Except on the macro scale, they may not be helpful terminological choices for building understanding and relationships between individuals. For this game, speaking from direct experience is always helpful. It is a shift from discussing “your imagined people on average” to “your personally experienced intra-tribal and intertribal interaction in particular.” In pursuing relationship, I would, with self-conscious reservations, much rather call on the richness of my actual history with actual people as I define who I think I am and who I am becoming. In the same vein, I see the value in asking people from other tribes about their direct experiences.

No matter the geographic location of the brain, the social stratum of the body, the physical or metaphysical lens of the mind, the consciousness, whosever it is, exists independently. Ayn Rand’s Anthem provides a literary example of (satirical or critical) this status even in the face of pure collectivism: only the collective pronoun we exists until I is discovered in a cabin in the forest by the protagonists. The intimation of a collective reality is a purely discursive one. And yet, according to Bakhtin, “the individual consciousness not only cannot be used to explain anything, but, on the contrary, is itself in need of explanation” (as cited in Morris, The Bakhtin Reader, p. 11). This seems to be a paradox. Though it was not self-assembled, my mind, no mind, is a hive mind, like the one found in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game; no truly central thinker for two or more consciousnesses. Input from the bodily senses of one individual cannot be made the complete, direct, subjective experience of another—maybe that technology is on the way.

With this in mind, ideological becoming looks different. When direct experience is the means of ascribing identity and culture, rather than abstractions of groups, the scale and scope of otherness required for life-growth changes: it shrinks to the level of any other individual. Consider that the initial otherness of even my closest tribemates, my family, was sufficient to birth my consciousness, and that their and other tribemates’ variety of experiences and perspectives continues to stretch me. Indeed, like two stream beds converging to form a river’s head are alike but different and ever-changing, the potential diversity existing between any two individuals, if mined tirelessly and creatively, is inexhaustible, though perhaps limited to certain theaters of experience and perspective.

In light of this micro view of ideological becoming, there is no reason not to become something, that is within the bounds of law and reason. The stakes are somewhat lower when if I move to OtherContext, for example, my goal is not to take on the national or other-imagined-community identity of OtherContext-ness or to abandon any SelfContext-ness I might have—of course I mean in any kind of cultural or social sense rather than legal sense. This is because I am aware that my consciousness, culture, and identities are only based on what I have directly experienced and been exposed to. As long as I keep experiencing and keep being exposed to things while maintaining a dialogic stance, I am free to continue becoming, and to continue becoming as I interact with the local tribe wherever I am.

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